August 17, 2014
I want to begin today with a short excerpt from an episode of the 70’s TV show “Mork and Mindy,” which was when I first fell in love with Robin Williams. He was the goofy alien Mork, who concluded each episode of the show by reporting his findings on Earth to his supervisor Orson on the planet of Ork. This one sets up today’s lessons in a memorable way.
Mork & Mindy: In Mork We Trust (#1.21) (1979)
Mork: This week I discovered a terrible disease called loneliness.
Orson: Do many people on Earth suffer from this disease?
Mork: Oh yes sir, and how they suffer. One man I know suffers so much he has to take a medication called bourbon, even that doesn’t help very much because then he can hear paint dry.
Orson: Does bed rest help?
Mork: No because I’ve heard that sleeping alone is part of the problem. You see, Orson, loneliness is a disease of the spirit. People who have it think that no one cares about them.
Orson: Do you have any idea why?
Mork: Yes sir you can count on me. You see, when children are young, they’re told not to talk to strangers. When they go to school, they’re told not to talk to the person next to them. Finally when they’re very old, they’re told not to talk to themselves, who’s left?
Orson: Are you saying Earthlings make each other lonely?
Mork: No sir I’m saying just the opposite. They make themeslves lonely, they’re so busy looking out for number one that there’s not enough room for two.
Orson: It’s too bad everybody down there can’t get together and find a cure.
Mork: Here’s the paradox, Sir, because if they did get together, they wouldn’t need one.
I vividly remember running into my dad’s arms in tears when I found out that everyone in my (I think it was 3rd grade) class was invited to Caroline Bromley’s birthday party except me. We all loved to go to parties at her big, fancy house, where the games were always lively and the food always delicious. It hurt to be excluded. I know I’m fortunate that this example is of an incident that didn’t cause me any permanent damage.
Lots of people have much more traumatic stories about exclusion than that one. Through my ministry among LGTBQ youth, I’ve heard numerous stories of parents or grandparents rejecting their children—even throwing them out on the street—because of their sexuality or gender identity. And the news tells ugly stories every day about people of one color, or ethnic origin, or faith, rejecting and ostracizing those who are different from them. Sometimes the exclusion impacts lives in dramatic ways—a person loses a job, or a judicial system turns a blind eye, because of prejudice. Sometimes these stories end in violence, far too many of them result in death.
In contrast to all of that, according to the prophet Isaiah in today’s OT reading, God’s house “shall be a place of prayer for all people.” It will be a place where the foreigners and outcasts will be brought into the Lord’s court rejoicing alongside the Israelites, the people Isaiah considered God’s chosen ones.
And it would be nice to sit down now, and say that’s the end of the story. It is, but the trouble is, WE are in the MIDDLE of the story, and not at the end. And the middle is messy.
The middle is where today’s Gospel reading takes place. After a theological discussion with Jewish religious leaders (Pharisees), as he tried to do last week, Jesus tries to withdraw a little from his usual ministry. And like so many do, he has headed north for a little vacation. It is worth noting that “the region of Tyre and Sidon” where Jesus headed might not reference a geographic region, so much as it indicates, in a code phrase for “Gentile land” among the people of Matthew’s time, that the scene of the story is changing. Remember, Matthew is writing his Gospel for a very Jewish audience, so it would have meant something to them to hear that Jesus had wandered away from home into the heathen land. It could only mean trouble.
And yes, the cast of characters shows that to be true. Instead of knowledgeable religious authorities, who do they encounter next but a Canaanite woman? Canaanites were the most Gentile of Gentiles, the most pagan of the pagans—not to mention she’s a WOMAN! This ultimate outsider cries out to Jesus for help. Initially, Jesus and the disciples try to ignore her, but she is so persistent in her distress that they start to find her annoying. The disciples ask, “Jesus, can’t you just send her away?”
And Jesus responds in a most surprising and upsetting way. He doesn’t tell them to stop being so mean. He actually seems to agree with them that his mission is solely to Jews, to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”—suggesting that even back-sliding Jews are more in keeping with his mission than this weeping Gentile who is calling out to him in the words of the Psalmist, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”
But she will not be dissuaded from her task, which is to seek help for her child. She falls on her knees in front of him, showing homage and humility in a way the Pharisees and even the disciples have not yet learned to do. Again she calls him “Lord,” and appeals to him, “Help me.” Again he refuses her, and not in a gentle way: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Lots of commentators try to soften the blow of this harsh line. Some explain that the word used here is not the one for wild dogs, but the diminuative “house pet” or “puppy,” and that people in the ancient world cherished their house dog just as we do now. But that doesn’t make it any better, in my opinion. The point is still clearly, “Jews are like children, Gentiles are like animals.” Even if they are cute animals, Jesus is still saying, “We belong and you don’t. We are in and you are out. God’s mission and compassion and time are not meant for the likes of you.”
What is amazing to me is that the woman does not contradict Jesus. Instead she agrees with his characterizing her as a dog, but then uses it to contradict him. She points out that at least pets get to eat the crumbs that fall off the children’s table. Though Jesus and the disciples have rejected her at every turn, she remains confident that the Lord can and will help her daughter.
And finally Jesus responds to her. He describes her unconditional confidence in God’s mercy, unswerving trust in God’s goodness, as FAITH. Though Jesus has habitually referred to his disciples and to other religious people as “you of little faith,” and repeatedly asks them, “Are you still without understanding?” Jesus says to this woman, “Great is your faith!” Jesus may have thought that he was called only to serve within the borders of his ethnic and religious and cultural heritage, but clearly the borders have now moved. Jesus has allowed himself to be changed by the faith of a Gentile woman.
Now there are those who are offended by the idea that Jesus learned about his calling to be the Messiah from another person. Didn’t Jesus always know that he had come to save the whole world? Well, maybe not. Maybe he had to grow into his own calling, just as we do. Maybe he needed to hear an outsider tell him what it felt like to be excluded, and he realized that it was not in harmony with how God wanted the world to be. Why couldn’t Jesus learn? As one person asked in Bible study this week, “Do you think he potty-trained himself?” The point is, Jesus may have begun his ministry with one goal in mind, but now there is a healed Gentile girl and a fundamental change in plan.
Matthew’s hearers would have understood very clearly that the entire Hebrew Scriptures describe a coming Messiah who would be the savior to the people of Israel. But Jesus appears to have been so shaken by the discovery that the world is bigger than he anticipated, that he is even expanding his own response to humanity.
And that, of course, means that the disciples’ mission and ministry, and our mission and ministry, is also expanded. As God widens the parameters of who belongs in God’s kingdom, we are called to do so as well. We, the Pharisees, the religious insiders, are invited now to look out from our community and see who is crying out for help and healing. Who are to us, the people of “Tyre and Sidon,” the members of a foreign culture and distant beliefs? Who do we want Jesus to send away because they are bothering us? Our first reaction might be that they are not “one of us,” but remember how the Canaanite woman fought her way to the table of grace. Everyone, she insisted, should benefit from God’s blessing. And the story ends with Jesus praising her faith and commending her persistence. The story ends with her daughter healed. The story ends with God so loving the WORLD. The story ends, as Isaiah first imagined it, with people from all nations streaming together into God’s arms.